Winter Books Issue - 2005

Short takes

Winter Books Issue - 2005 /

Happy Isles in Crisis
Clive Moore
Asia Pacific Press, 2005, $30

Clive Moore’s Happy Isles in Crisis manages to encapsulate the human and administrative disaster that continues to unfold in the Solomon Islands, in a slim 200 page tome. Names, dates, acronyms and major exports are brandished with a blistering geography-report frequency. The prose is concise and informative, comparable to the historical introduction of a more literate Lonely Planet guidebook.

There is clarity to this history by lists, lost in many contemporary books on other failed states. Moore is deeply committed to the idiosyncrasies of the Solomon Islands and wastes no time comparing the already understudied struggle between the Guale IFM and the Malatian MEF to situations in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia that may seem similar. Moore even decries the use of the terms ‘Balkanization’ and ‘domino effect’ by Pacific media outlets to link the coup against the Ulufa’alu government to similar actions in Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

To understand these conflicts together is to understand little outside of postcolonial development. The specificity with which Moore presents the Solomon Islands allows the reader to understand what it means to be 118 out of 173 on the UNDP Human Development Index, and why one would rather live there than, for example, Haiti.

Happy Isles closes as Australian-led peacekeepers arrive in earnest to engage in ‘nation-building’ but makes no clumsy analogy to U.S. efforts. Refreshingly, Moore never presumes to know in what form the Solomon Islands will or should exist.
–Arun Chaudhary


House Home Family: Living and Being Chinese
Edited by Ronald G. Knapp; -Kai-Yin Lo
UH Press, 2005, $29 paperback, $58 cloth

There are more than 100 different writing styles for jia–the Chinese character for house, home and family–and there are perhaps just as many dwelling styles in the comprehensive anthology House Home Family: Living and Being Chinese. Leading scholars of anthropology, architecture, art, geography and history invite the reader to ‘think with history’ rather than ‘think about history’ in this tribute to the house, said to be the most profound symbol of the Chinese family. Photographs of everything from fairy tale fortresses and stately merchant complexes to cave-like abodes and collapsible tents accompany expositions on living spaces as they relate to beliefs and values, gender relations, hierarchy and life events. Treatments on auspicious images, furnishings, fengshui, courtyards and ‘outdoor living rooms,’ or gardens, round it all out to make for a vibrant work that has the potential to convert the casual reader into a celebrant of human culture.
–Andrea Baer


Lost Generations: A Boy, a School, a Princess
J. Arthur Rath
Kamehameha Schools Press, -2005, $20

J. Arthur Rath’s Lost Generations is simultaneously a journey of self-discovery, a history of the Hawaiian Islands and an indictment of the political malfeasance exhibited by the Bishop Estate trustees who, according to Rath, ultimately failed to honor the wishes of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop’s desire to create an institution that would educate Hawaiian children.

Rath spent most of his early childhood being shuffled among foster homes and the homes of relatives and family friends while his mother struggled to earn a living. By the 6th grade he had gone through five schools in two states and on two islands. He had witnessed first hand the effects of the depression on the Mainland and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. However, in 1944 his life was changed. That is the year he entered the Kamehameha School for Boys, an institution established for the purpose of providing education to disadvantaged children of native ancestry. The school provided five years of much-needed stability for Rath and became his only real boyhood home. Kamehameha enabled Rath, and many other children, to turn their lives around.

In the 1990s Rath’s former classmate Oswald Stender united Kamehameha alumni to take on the corruption of the Bishop Estate trustees responsible for overseeing the school. According to some, estate trustees grossly mismanaged the estate’s large financial holdings and abandoned the school’s mandate to educate Hawaiian children. The Bishop Estate Scandal galvanized the Hawaiian community in the 1990s. This is the story of a fight to save a school, and in doing so, to rescue the children of the ‘lost generations.’

Told in the engaging talk story style of the islands, the book can be read selectively or as a whole. It is meant to engender courteous listening, and invoke the ho’oponopono, or healing power, of the Hawaiian people.
–Jerome Klena


No End to the Journey
S. Shankar
Steerforth Press, 2005, $22.95

The components of an Indian novel reflect the substratum of India: extended families, rural villages, urban hustle, marriage, job, festivals and a dash of philosophy. Blending these themes, S. Shankar, in his novel No End to the Journey, skillfully addresses the challenges of modernity versus traditional values in India over three generations of the Iyer family.

Hinged between an oppressive father and a flippant son is the main character Gopalakrishnan. The cast of characters Gopalakrishnan encounters and his contemplative morning walks portray the stresses of balancing societal pressures and family obligations. Though plodding at times, this well-conceived novel aptly captures the strains of contemporary Indian life.

S. Shankar, who is a professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawai’i, is a capable novelist and the reader will enjoy his descriptive interludes: ‘The pool of water into which the moon had flung its reflection once upon a fabled time was long since gone from Chandni Chowk. Only memory lay pooled there now.’ His depiction of rural Paavalampatti echoes R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi. For anyone familiar with India, the episodes debating the sanctity of the Ramayana definitely enhance this quality read.
–Michael C. Skinner


On Beauty
Zadie Smith
Penguin Press, 2005, $25.95

Poor Zadie Smith published White Teeth at an absurdly young age to massive critical acclaim. Her second novel, The Autograph Man, bombed like Frank DeLima at a Hawaiian Studies faculty dinner. White Teeth was an incredibly intricate tale of three families in North London, colliding with each other in an explosion of cultural, racial and religious confetti that exemplified Britain’s imperial past and neo-imperial present. The Autograph Man, also set in North London, was, in comparison, a dreary, self-conscious exercise in semiotics and trendy cultural references. At one point, the main character even takes an awkwardly plotted trip to New York, so that Smith may pontificate at length to her readers on the symbiotic relationship between Polish immigrants and ‘hipsters’ in a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. Check please!

On Beauty is, thankfully, a respectable comeback. Smith pits two rival art historians, both Rembrandt specialists, against each other on the campus of a New England liberal arts college. While Howard Belsey, a ’70s radical of working-class British origins with an African-American wife, squares off against Monty Kipps, a West Indian traditionalist and right wing demagogue–their families intermingle in awkward and unpredictable ways. Framed around a series of personal disasters and catastrophically bad decisions, On Beauty allows Smith to do what Smith does best: mess around with themes of race, class and sexual jealousy until neither her characters nor her readers know which way is up. Her take on the ‘culture wars’ may be a shade predictable, but stick with her and, as with White Teeth, you are sure to walk away with a feeling that human beings of all shapes, sizes, colors and levels of education desperately need each other.
–J. H.